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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Genius Overcome: The Destruction of Catherine de Parthenay.

The life of Catherine de Parthenay (1554–1631) was dominated by national religious conflict and her decision to take a pivotal role of resistance at the all-consuming centre of that maelstrom. The war between the Catholics and Protestants in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries robbed Parthenay in turn of her home, her health, her children, and her freedom, leaving one of France’s most brilliant women, at the end of her long life, wandering the ruins of her former estate with her only surviving daughter, ruminating endlessly but without self-pity on the heavy cost of her unwavering religious loyalty.

For somebody whose life ended in such omnipresent gloom, Parthenay’s life began in the full bloom of promise. Her father, Jean de Parthenay, was the lord of Soubise and Mouchamps, and a courtier known for moral integrity and intelligence, while her mother, Antoinette Buchard d’Aubeterre, was a maiden of honour at the court of the future Queen of France, Eleanor of Austria (1498–1558), also known as an individual of culture and brilliance, and a devotee of the religious reform movement bubbling to life in early sixteenth-century France. The pair were married in May 1553, and Catherine was born in March 1554.

Whereas many daughters of families with close connections to the royal court grew up with an education centred around dress, etiquette, and ostentation, the Parthenays, influenced by their Protestant principles, raised Catherine to honour humility, intelligence, simplicity, and piety, and so it was that the young girl, while lacking almost entirely friends of her age to play with, or any toys beyond simple rigid dolls, or the fine dresses and garish makeup that were the common currency of her peers who frequented the notoriously loosely moraled court of Francis I, was compensated for those deprivations with access to all manner of books, and to high quality teachers willing to explain their contents.

The greatest and most influential of those teachers was doubtlessly François Viète (1540–1603), who entered the Parthenays’ service in 1564, two years before the death of Jean. Viète would serve as Catherine’s teacher until 1570, during which time he taught her mathematics, astronomy, astrology, Greek, and Latin, while in turn learning about Calvinism from the family. He found Catherine a brilliant student, who learned new languages as easily as she did novel mathematical concepts, and as she soon outstripped the books she had in her possession, Viète took the step of writing treatises for her to study based on his own advanced mathematical explorations, including the use of decimals (which had been employed by Muslim mathematicians in the fourteenth century, but which wouldn’t become common in Europe until Simon Stevins’s book De Thiende in 1585), and his theory about planetary orbits being elliptical (another bleeding edge scientific instinct that wouldn’t become common in scientific circles until Kepler’s planetary laws were published forty years later, in 1609).

Poet, linguist, mathematician, Catherine de Parthenay was by 14 years of age already an intellectual juggernaut, and had she lived in a more modern era she would likely have had at least another half decade to develop those attributes. As it was, she lived in the mid-sixteenth century, and as such was, upon turning 13, of an age to enter the marriage market. She was originally slated to marry Gaspard de Coligny, the 15-year-old son of one of France’s most distinguished Huguenot families and a close friend of the family, but his death at the hands of the plague meant Antoinette had to reshuffle the dynastic deck and find a new suitable match.

She fatefully decided upon Charles de Quellenac (1548–1572), who was far more of an unknown quantity to the Parthenays, and the pair married in 1568, only to discover that they were not particularly interested in each other. Charles was devoted to serving the Protestant cause through force of arms, and in his absence Catherine returned to the ways of her childhood, so that on those occasions when they did manage to be in each other’s company, there existed a reigning awkwardness that only seemed to get worse with the passage of time. Antoinette felt that she had a made a profound mistake in arranging the match, and pushed her daughter to obtain a divorce. Catherine, though not rapturously happy in her marriage, was not able to completely commit to her mother’s divorce strategy however, and it was not until 1572, when Charles was killed along with tens of thousands of other French Protestants during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, that the generally dissatisfying wrong turn in her life found its resolution.

Catherine was in La Rochelle, not Paris, during the Massacre and so avoided the immediate aftermath of the carnage, but as La Rochelle was a Protestant stronghold, it was inevitable that it would soon fall under siege. Brought up on overwrought tales of the heroism and justness of the Protestant cause, she found herself wanting to aid its fight against oppression with every fibre of her 19-year-old being but, lacking the ability to join the military effort against the forces of Catholicism, Catherine instead employed her brain, writing a play, Holopherne, to dramatise the Protestant cause, and particularly the brave resistance of La Rochelle.

These were years of almost constant religious war in France, with each peace only giving way to new conflict as new centres of resistance and combinations of state power waxed and waned. To Catherine, these were years when Protestantism showed its indomitable spirit, but to her mother, they were perhaps more significantly the chaotic backdrop behind the real story, which was finding a new husband for her daughter, one of good family, stout character, firm Protestant convictions, and who was capable of forming an actual emotional attachment to her daughter. The perfect solution soon presented itself in the form of René II de Rohan (1550–1586), lord of Blain, Protestant soldier par excellence, friend and supporter of Francois Viète (who still kept in contact with Catherine as he was working his way towards his 1591 magnum opus that proposed many aspects of modern algebra), and a charismatic leader whose services were equally sought after by royalist and reformer alike.

The pair were married in 1575 and this time all was well. Catherine was enchanted by Blain, with its combination of deep family archives and sprawling experimental gardens, and found in René an individual as devoted as she was to the Protestant cause, but who was still capable of being equally devoted to her and their growing family. A daughter, Henriette, was born in 1577, and another, Catherine, in 1578, with a son, Henri, following in 1579. Catherine’s next child died shortly after childbirth (1581) and the following was still-born (1582), but in 1583 a second son was born, Benjamin, with 1584 seeing the birth of their last child, the long-suffering Anne.

From 1578 to 1585, René kept to his resolution to stay at home with his family and not risk himself, and thereby their future, in battle. These were happy times for Catherine, probably the last happy times she would ever truly know, as her husband stayed safe beside her, and her children grew under her care and education to honourably reflect the values and beliefs she held dear (including her love of mathematics, to which she returned during this brief idyll). Finally, however, René could no longer resist the call to action, and rejoined the war effort to fight for the cause of Henri of Navarre in 1585. He soon found himself in La Rochelle during an outbreak of plague which claimed his life in April 1586, leaving Catherine a widow once again, with the responsibility of not only raising five children on her own, but of administering multiple hotbeds of Protestantism in the middle of a tumultuous civil war that would not see its first era of semi-calm until the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

The coming decades saw Catholic armies raze any property associated with her name, destroying Blain with a particular vengeance that extended even to the family archives. The looting of her property and destruction of her land left Catherine in constantly dire financial straits, while her role in one of the great conflicts of the French religious civil wars culminated in the breaking of her health and the loss of her freedom. In 1627, she was in La Rochelle when the troops of Louis XIII placed it under siege. While her son Henri attempted to break the siege by force of arms from without, she maintained the spirit of resistance from within the city, encouraging the citizens not to give in to royal pressure, to repeat their great stand of 1573. It was heroic and inspirational advice, surely, but perhaps not ultimately in the best interests of La Rochelle, which over the course of its fourteen month ideologically sustained resistance saw its population dwindle by eighty percent, from 27,000 to just around 5,000, at the hands of disease and starvation.

The defence of La Rochelle ended in failure, and for their role in encouraging it, Catherine, age 74, and her daughter Anne, age 44, were imprisoned, remaining in jail from November 1628 to July 1629. Returning to Soubise after their release from jail, Catherine and Anne found a world stripped of its meaning and memory. Their lands razed, their greatest friends from the decades’ long Protestant struggle dead from disease and battle, their finances devastated, and their family broken (Henriette and the younger Catherine had died of health complications, and Henri and Benjamin were both exiles thanks to their role as Protestant soldiers), the pair haunted their ancestral lands, lingering over old wounds, and marking the steady dwindling of their threadbare social circle. Catherine’s health, already in a perilous state after 14 months of steady starvation, and eight months of prison, deteriorated steadily, until she finally breathed her last on 26 October 1631.

Catherine’s intellectual journey during these years was one shared by many educated women of her era. Undoubtedly one of her age’s great minds, she absorbed with alacrity the newest developments in science and mathematics while keeping herself grounded in classical traditions and the reverence of dynastic history. She and René were both firm supporters of Viète’s work, which support he acknowledged by dedicating his 1591 Analyse mathématique restaurée to Catherine. During the rare tranquil moments in her life, and particularly during the era when she was educating her children, she returned to her love of mathematics, but the pace of political and religious events, and her parents’ example of steadfast devotion to a religious cause, pushed her ever away from her purely personal studies and towards the hungry centre of French theological politics, which would ultimately devour her and her family utterly. She published no mathematical volumes, and produced no new theories. Though she had a mind equal to those tasks, she lived in a world set firmly against their realisation, leaving us with the sad conclusion that genius does not always, after all, sweep every difficulty before it, and that a culture that lionises inflexible obedience to a cause often ends by consuming its greatest minds.


The book here is Nicole Vray’s Catherine de Parthenay, duchesse de Rohan (1998), which as far as I know has not been translated but which I found pretty easy going with my old university French thanks to Vray’s engaging style and gift for narration. In English, your choices are far less robust, consisting primarily of Parthenay’s section in the essential core book for all Women in Science enthusiasts, Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey’s two volume Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science.


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